An estimated 74 percent of trash generated by restaurants and schools could be composted, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. When haulers pick up trash from Woodstock’s restaurants, they take it to the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency (UCRRA) in Kingston for weighing. Even though both food and food-soiled paper products, such a pizza boxes, can be processed in an industrial composting system, and even though there is such a brand-new system onsite at the UCRRA, the trash is then trucked to a landfill near Syracuse or Rochester.
Because the compostable material is mixed with regular trash, it has to be transported more than 250 miles in a vehicle that gets two to three miles per gallon. At that landfill, it rots and expels methane, said to contribute to global warming at a level 23 times higher than carbon dioxide. If the organic waste stayed in Ulster County, it could be converted into compost for use by local landscapers and gardeners. The tipping cost for trash is $103 per ton. UCRRA currently charges $33 per ton to drop off compostables.
“This is a no-brainer,” said Abby Bressack of Woodstock Organic Waste (WOW), an independent working group of Woodstock Transition. Bressack and the two other members of WOW, Jo Yanow-Schwartz and Joy Gross, are determined to make large-scale composting a reality in Woodstock and ultimately throughout Ulster County. But there are a number of kinks to work out.
Of the three major pieces of the puzzle, the biggest one, the industrial composting system, is already in place. The members of WOW have been speaking to restaurant owners about separating their compostables, a process that will take some adjustment but could, they hope, become as reflexive as culling recyclable cans, bottles, and paper. But separation is useless until there’s a trucking company willing and able to haul compostables to the UCRRA at a price restaurant owners can afford.
The established haulers “are not embracing the program,” said Michelle Bergkamp, UCRRA’s Recycling Coordinator. “They make a lot of money on garbage. Some of them already have the technology — they have the truck dedicated to food waste composting, which can’t leak. These are large national companies. One is an $18 billion company — you’d think they would be able to make it work. We have the facility, and there’s lots of interest, but the prices for hauling have deterred smaller businesses.”
A pilot program set up in spring of 2012 exceeded expectations and made back the investment of installing the composting system, officially called the Organics Recovery Facility. UCRRA continues to receive compostables from grocery stores, colleges, and a few restaurants, enabling the facility to create a soil enrichment substance that it sells at $43 per ton, mostly to landscapers and to topsoil producers who blend the compost with another product for resale. One ton, approximately two cubic yards, fills the back of a pickup truck.
“We don’t produce nearly enough to supply farms,” said Bergkamp. “We would love to advance composting in Ulster County.” But the participating businesses are serviced by two haulers, Waste Management and Royal Carting, which find the economics of hauling do not make it worthwhile to pick up compostables from a few individual restaurants in Woodstock.
Worth the gas money
Lori Caso of Waste Management said her company has helped implement compost hauling for a few large-scale businesses, such as a project in Chicago, where eleven Whole Foods markets have been separating their compostables. But in general, servicing individual restaurants for composting is not cost-effective for such a large hauler.
Julian Lesser is eager to jump into the breach. Lesser calls himself “a serial entrepreneur,” someone who likes to start businesses, sell them once they’re established, and move on to something new. He recently sold Boro Magazine, a publication he produced in western Queens, to a larger publisher. In the course of his venture, he became involved in a Queens composting project, leading him to the idea of offering hauling of compostables in the Hudson Valley through a business he calls Compost Valley.